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[GUEST POST] John Shirley Hears The Music in the Sentence

John Shirley is the author of numerous books and many, many short stories. His novels include Bleak History, Bioshock: Rapture, Everything is Broken, Crawlers, Demons, Doyle After Death, Wyatt in Wichita, Cellars, In Darkness Waiting, and seminal cyberpunk works, including City Come A-Walkin’, and the A Song Called Youth trilogy. His story collections include the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild award-winning Black Butterflies; In Extremis: The Most Extreme Stories of John Shirley; Living Shadows: Stories, New & Pre-owned. He also writes for screen (e.g. The Crow) and television. As a musician John Shirley has fronted his own bands and written lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult and others.

Black October Records has just reelased a two-CD/download compilation of his music from 1978 – 2012, titled Broken Mirror Glass.

The Music in the Sentence

by John Shirley

I was scarcely more than a boy when I attended the Clarion Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. One of the instructors was Harlan Ellison, and being a fan of Ellison’s I was on edge with excitement, even more like a cat on hot bricks than usual. In those days I was wildly callow, the very soul of impulsiveness. One night I dropped acid–and I dropped down on Ellison, just missing him, from the boughs of a tree as he walked underneath. After the necessary fulmination, Harlan let it go. He put up with me, he said, because I “heard the music in the sentence”. You either heard the music in prose, he told us, or you didn’t.

I’ve been singing lead in rock bands for more than thirty years. I still write songs, sing, and perform. Tracks I recorded from 1978 to 2012 are found in the Broken Mirror Glass collection just out from Black October Records.

You see, for years, writing science-fiction and fantasy was mostly my day job. Music was my real life, then–first punk rock, then something I called “futuristic funk” and then a post-industrial sound. I wrote paperback novels chiefly to support the band. Book advances paid for rehearsal rooms, bought hamburgers for players, paid for studio time to work up demos, paid for gas to the gig. Music made me feel good–otherwise, I was bad at feeling good. I signed a record deal, made a record, played at CBGB and the Pyramid, and crashed through the china shop of my youth. The rock scene was powder keg volatility and I was always flicking lit matches; it’s possible I’d be dead now, if I’d taken a certain deal at CBS records…

Then I became the father of twin boys, and the responsibility eased me away from bands–and away from drugs. I felt a genuine grief in letting rock’n’roll be displaced from the center of my life, and wrote about the feeling of loss, transposed into a near-future cyberpunk setting, in the story “A Walk Through Beirut”.

Fortunately, I love science-fiction. But music kept cropping up in my books. My novel City Come A-Walkin’ was set in a futuristic rock club, featuring a character inspired by Patti Smith. A near-future rocker features prominently in the Eclipse volume of my cyberpunk trilogy, A Song Called Youth. The sf novel I’m writing now, Stormland, doesn’t involve rock characters but it has its own soundtrack, in my mind, including “Black Planet” by the Sisters of Mercy.

For me, writing prose has always been intertwined with music, while writing a song–for most anyone–involves storytelling. Rare is the song which doesn’t tell a story. Often the story is hinted at; you can infer a great deal from the lyrics of “Mack the Knife”. Sometimes, as in Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, it’s a view from on high, a whole dramatic landscape revealed. Other times, as in many a Lou Reed song–“Street Hassle”, say–an entire story is told, with a beginning, middle, and end . Every country-western song tells a story, as do most rock songs. There’s a clear cut scene playing theatrically out in “Honky Tonk Women”. And I do hear the music in prose. When I give a live reading of a story, I hit the rhythms of the sentences hard, I explore resonance, like the vibration at the heart of music; at key moments I ring the emotional bells of the imagery.

When I write, I usually listen to music; it might be Stravinsky, it might be John Coltrane, it might be Savages, it might be The Blue Oyster Cult–I have written the lyrics for eighteen songs recorded by that band–or it might be Motorhead. I don’t find it distracting–music embeds me in the energetic fields of the writing, and somehow makes it come alive for me…

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